What’s the biggest obstacle to positive reform in the Church? Reactionaries in the Roman Curia? Conservatives in the conference of bishops? The Code of Canon Law?
The correct answer is none of the above. The biggest obstacle to reform is the roadblock thrown in its way by self-styled reform groups themselves. By advocating changes that clash with the doctrine, discipline, and best interests of the Church, they give reform a bad name and lead sensible people to reason that if this is what "reform" means, they want no part of it.
Not to leave you guessing, I mean Voice of the Faithful, Call to Action, and the gaggle of single-issue outfits pushing for women’s ordination, approval of the homosexual lifestyle, and the return to active ministry of men who quit the priesthood and got married.
Some months back, I had an experience that told me a lot about the mindset at work in such groups.
Shortly after publishing a book on the abuse of secrecy in the Church, I got an e-mail from a woman associated with one of these groups who wanted me to help with planning a project — a national "synod of the laity" several years down the line.
But I had reservations.
For starters, I explained, a synod, in the Christian tradition, is an officially convened convocation, not something any old group can throw together on its own. For Voice of the Faithful to call its meeting a synod would be needlessly provocative and invite trouble. But the woman seemed unpersuaded, and after further back and forth along these lines I broke off the conversation.
I see from the Voice of the Faithful Web site that the synod of the laity has apparently morphed into a mere "historic assembly" to reform the Church. Currently it’s planned for Detroit in the fall of 2011. I wish the organizers well, but I doubt that I’ll be attending. Among other reasons, I strongly suspect that the historic assembly, supposing it takes place, will be one more nail in the coffin of reform.
But here let me answer a question that may have occurred to readers: What kind of reform do I have in mind? For a reply, I offer a well-known authority on the subject — Pope Benedict XVI.
Last May 26, speaking to a pastoral convention of the Diocese of Rome, Benedict gave a remarkable talk that deserves far more attention than it’s gotten to date. In it, he discussed the successes and failures in realizing the vision of the laity’s role in the Church as set out by the Second Vatican Council, and proposed a program for the future.
"There is still a long way to go," he said. "Too many of the baptized do not feel part of the ecclesial community and live on its margins." The solution, he suggested, lies in revising pastoral structures "in such a way that the co-responsibility of all members of the People of God in their entirety is gradually promoted." And then he added:
This demands a change in mindset, particularly concerning lay people. They must no longer be viewed as "collaborators" of the clergy but truly recognized as "co-responsible", for the Church’s being and action, thereby fostering the consolidation of a mature and committed laity.
Co-responsibility was a watchword of advanced — but responsible — thinking about reforms in the decision-making processes of the Church in the early 1970s. The concept eventually foundered for a variety of reasons, including the disastrous fiasco of the original Call to Action Conference in 1976. For Benedict to revive it now suggests that, 35 years later, the idea still has an essential soundness and vitality that have yet to be realized. That’s what responsible efforts at reform should be working on now.
But Voice of the Faithful, Call to Action, and the rest aren’t going to do the job.
VOTF was founded in 2002 as a response to the sex-abuse crisis, but it long since wandered into other areas well beyond its competence. Its 2009 national assembly scheduled for this October will be a shrunken affair in a Long Island hotel, beginning Friday evening and ending Saturday afternoon and featuring two perennial gadflies of progressive Catholicism: Sr. Joan Chittister, O.S.B., and Rev. Thomas Reese, S.J.
But don’t bet that the group will make it till then. VOTF was recently reported $60,000 short of what it needs to keep going through the summer; a last-minute appeal raised the necessary funds, but the future is still uncertain. Its strategic plan, available on the Web, admits that it suffers from "general apathy and discontent among leadership" and a persistent "inability to clearly define ourselves."
Call to Action’s national conference in November in Milwaukee will last a full two-and-half days, but otherwise there’s a family resemblance to VOTF, with an emphasis on shopworn jargon and the themes of dissent. Featured speakers will address such winning topics as "forms of marginality" and "recent trends in liberation theology regarding pluralism and eco-theology."
The first of the keynoters (there are three) will be Rev. Roy Bourgeois, M.M., who’s led a long-running campaign against the army’s School of the Americas and who tangled with the Vatican last year over his involvement in the "ordination" of a woman in a Unitarian Universalist church.
Plainly, the group has a past, tracing its name to the 1976 Call to Action Conference. Whether it has a future is questionable.
Poorly as these groups seem to be doing, nevertheless, they have enough life left to be obstacles to reform. They do that by providing ammunition to super-reactionaries who’d like the Church to be just as it was in 1958 (the year that Pope Pius XII died, in case you’ve forgotten) and discouraging others from taking a serious look at needed changes.
Pope Benedict did his best to give structural reform a jump-start last May. But it won’t happen as long as the reform groups keep getting in the way.